AMIS 2022: The Radio as a Musical Instrument—Five Composition Practices from Electronic Music

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

The Radio as a Musical Instrument: Five Composition Practices from Electronic Music (Remote Presentation)
Thom Holmes

Thom Holmes is an independent electronic music researcher and historian. He is author of Electronic and Experimental Music (6th edition, Routledge, 2020) and Sound Art: A Primer (Routledge, 2022). He produces the podcast The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music. Holmes has been writing about and making electronic music since the 1960s. He is an alumnus of Composers Inside Electronics, the music group devoted to the performance practices of David Tudor.

When the three-element “Audion” vacuum tube was invented by Lee DeForest in 1906, it ushered in the age of modern electronics by making possible the first practical means of amplifying electromagnetic signals. This led directly to radio broadcasting and untold other media applications. Electronic music owes much to this invention. Many fundamental signals used in electronic music go back to the early days of broadcast technology. White noise, filtering, and audio signal oscillators are amongst these, as well as techniques for electronically shaping and controlling them. While many electronic musical instruments, such as the synthesizer, were built around harnessing these signals and techniques, radio signals themselves have also provided source material for some composers, particularly those of experimental music. Before digital radio, the airwaves were packed with all kinds of radio broadcasts. AM, FM, and especially shortwave transmissions were fascinating because they represented a universal form of energy connecting the world. Listening to these broadcasts was akin to eavesdropping on other realms entirely disconnected from one’s own yet joined together momentarily by the radio set. I explore how five different composers harnessed the power of radio as a musical instrument. I outline the compositional practices used by each and feature excerpts of each work. This diverse set of experimental composers will be presented in chronological order. It includes John Cage, Radio Music (USA 1956); Dick Raaijmakers, Ballade Erlkönig (Netherlands, 1967); Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kurzwellen (Germany, 1968); Michael Snow, Two Radio Solos (Canada, 1980); and Ann Hamilton, Mantle (USA, 1998). Overall, the diverse approaches and practices of these composers turn the idea of radio inside out so that it is no longer a mere receiver of information from the outside, but a source of unique musical expression of its own.

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.